Things I Know 36 of 365: We’re really good at not teaching kids to sing

I celebrate myself, and sing myself.

– Walt Whitman

Each day in fifth grade, as the bus arrived at school, I hoped everyone would break out in song. I didn’t have a particular tune in mind – at least not one that I recall now.

I just thought we should start singing the way the people did on stage when my grandparents took me to the symphony. Mayber “Carmina Burana” or the “Ode to Joy.” Something simple.

“Let’s sing,” I’d sometimes say to whichever friend was sitting next to me as we stood to de-bus. No one ever did.

Last summer, working with educators in South Africa, as we closed our week of workshops, the teachers would sing in celebration. Everyone, to a person, would sing. We’re talking harmonizing and vocal percussion.

These same teachers who at lunch were bemoaning contract negotiations and class sizes and access to technology, they sang. They transformed from teachers I could drop in to any faculty lounge across the country, to the cast of Glee.

I’ve never felt as foreign as in those moments.

This was what I’d hoped for every bus ride to school. It was happening around me.

But years of education had taught me I didn’t know how to sing.

So I stood sort of clapping arhythmically waiting for what I’d hoped for all those years to be over.

I mean, what would you do if everyone on staff broke into song at your next staff meeting?

When Jabiz Raisdana said he’d be taking my students’ writings and cobbling them together into a song, I thought, “Oh, I could do that.”

When he said, he’d be recording it, I thought, “Oh, no never, hu-uh.”

Worse still was the look on many of my students’ faces when I read them Jabiz’s suggestion that they might contribute a recording of a chorus of the song – fear and panic.

I’m not entirely certain when we teach students they can’t sing. I haven’t found where that particular standard resides in the curriculum. Whatever best practices we’re using to teach students not to sing (or play instruments for that matter) we should really start to employ them in the teaching of math and reading. We’re really good at it.


15 thoughts on “Things I Know 36 of 365: We’re really good at not teaching kids to sing

  1. YOU were uncomfortable with the singing? YOU – Mr. Improv?! I'd'a never thunk it, Zac!But I totally know what you mean. I had the same uncomfortable feeling when you were singing in our car last year. (-: I **love** to sing, and some people think I'm good at it, but I am terribly self-conscious about singing solo in casual situations, even though fronting a group and making money at singing is my ultimate dream! In my case, I think it's because I take singing very seriously. I need to bring in more silly, I guess! (re: your earlier post on being silly!)

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  3. Sometimes I am very embarrassed when I look back at old videos I have posted on Youtube of me singing, or listen to old covers that I have done. I have been playing guitar for nearly 20 years and I haven;t gotten much better. I stumble through chords and don't even know what a key is, let alone know how to sing one. I watch parts of American Idol and say things, “Wow! The sad part is they must think they can sing!” I am one of those people, but for whatever reason I am okay with that. I love it I love singing. I love music and I love trying to get better and sharing my journey. So many times society sets the boundaries as to what is good or successful, and like many people I was brainwashed into thinking that if I wanted to be a singer then I would have to be “good” enough. Deemed “signable” by some panel or record company. If I wanted to be a writer I would have to wait till I was deemed “publishable” by some publishing house, but the truth is that we do not have to wait to be selected. If we want to be singers all we have to do is sing. If we want to write, then we write. If audience is important to us then we can carve one out for ourselves. Our students are so used to watching art become a competition, it is no wonder they feel terrified to even try. People will laugh, see how we make fun of the clowns on American Idol. We have turned amateurs into clowns. I find joy in elevating the mediocre. I love being a contributing member to my own media. I like watching films by friends and reading blogs. I like to hear music they create. Not in an attempt to be signed or make it bug, but because they like to sing and jam. We need to re-instill that passion to create, for the sake of creation and sharing. For too long we have let art become another commodity. So come on Zach, like Cat Steven' says, :”If you want to sing out, sing out!”Having said all of that. I am the worlds worst dancer and will not dance under any circumstance. So many I need a few dance videos on youtube, if I want to put my money where my mouth is.

    • Jabiz, your point about American Idol is an apt one. While I realize we've
      been asking people to compete with their singing for quite some time, Idol
      legitimizes the weeding out process. While professing to help its
      contestants reach their dreams of hitting it big, it insists upon the caveat
      of “But first, we must eliminate thousands of you.”

      I do run headlong into moments of students telling me they're not writers.
      Their formal and informal teachers have done such a wonderful job of
      instilling the rules of creation and neglecting its prime selling point of

      It's interesting that you should mention youtube. In his book *Remix*,
      Lessig talks about how the ability to post, share, mix and remix is allowing
      a sort of folk renaissance. It asks not for expertise or credential, but for
      passion and ideas. Juxtapose that with your point about Idol and its
      interesting to see. The unfiltered media lets you create largely without
      restriction. The corporate-controlled systems impose capitalist tenets on

      My mom will be happy you invoked Cat Stevens. He inspired some serious kitchen
      and house cleaning dancing <http: ?p=”600″””> as I was growing

      Maybe my kids can teach you to dance.</http:>

  4. Reading your post and these comments Zac, I think it's pretty clear you went to the wrong school! Singing wasn't drummed out of me at school – in fact, I was pretty lucky that singing carried a fair bit of prestige at my school, rather than ridicule.Perhaps I should confess that my parents chose my schools pretty carefully by looking at their music programme – my Dad was a music teacher himself, so that had a lot to do with it!The school I am teaching at now has a wonderful (American) music teacher, who is passionate about singing. On the door to the music room is a Zimbabwean proverb: If you can walk, you can dance, if you can talk, you can sing. She is passionate about cultivating a love of singing – and I tell you, it's working at our school.What's more, as a teaching staff, we regularly step up in front of the kids and sing. Here's the link to our most recent performance – a Christmas Rap…/That is why I am confident that if Jabiz made the same offer to our 6th Graders, they'd be ecstatic. It's amazing what a difference a teacher can make – this is a wonderful opportunity for you and your students to put some value on the arts, and show how much fun singing can be.I can't wait to see what you come up with.

    • Keri-Lee, good job on your parents for their determination to find you a
      school that could give you the musical education they new you deserved. Some
      friends are struggling now with a lack of choices for their kids. Unhappy
      with their districted school, their kids are auditioning for the local arts
      magnet. Spots are non-existent, so the chances aren't great. Each time I
      hear more, I wish their district, and many like it, would realize there are
      no waiting lists for the giant comprehensives and take the hint.

      Whatever its failings, my school had a great choral program. His name was
      Mr. Carlson. He was responsible for the k-12 choral education for our small
      rural schools. Now that I'm a teacher, I'm not sure how Mr. Carlson got it
      all done. Beyond the basic instruction, he also created a madrigal program I
      got to be a part of from 7th grade on. While I knew medieval a cappella
      singing wasn't going to win me any popularity contests, I did know it spoke
      to something deeper within me. Never prestige, but always belonging.

      I'm sure I would love your school's music teacher. I kind of already do. I
      wonder if your school or the ones I've mentioned are the norm in America.
      I'm hoping it's you, but fearful it's me.

      A lingering thought I should mention – a thought I had in my head whilst
      writing this post, but never put on the screen. I'm worried about the formal
      and informal music education we receive. While Larissa is correct, we did,
      in fact, break out in song at a faculty meeting, it's more the exception
      than the rule. I don't necessarily want classical training. As I said to
      Jabiz, I'm optimistic for the rise of a new folk tradition of self-taught,
      community (physical and virtual) musicianship.

      I don't know whether I'll be teaching my kids to sing or not. My role in
      this creative project is still unclear. I will, without doubt be singing
      with them.

      Here's why. <http: watch?v=”LphfbpLLhyk”“”>

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful and thought-provoking questions.</http:>

  5. For the record, I definitely recall a sing-a-along to “Ain't No Mountain High Enough” during staff planning sometime last year. It's not quite what you describe, but it definitely showed a possibility for what you describe.

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  7. As a musician I'll sit down at a piano and play in any crowd, but I won't sing. When I taught fourth/fifth grades I wouldn't sing with my kids. It was too embarrassing for me. As a first grade teacher I put a piano in my classroom and we sing everyday. All of us. It's beautiful. But, I bet, by fourth or fifth grade most of my students won't do it anymore. How sad.My own daughters sing constantly. We sing together all the time. Currently it's songs from Oliver. I hope they continue that. I'm not sure how to help them do so.

  8. Very interesting post, Zac. I come alive when I hear my students (any grade from PreK to 8th grade) sing or play instruments. I sing my heart out because I can't help but be moved by the music. I have one of the best jobs in this world (being a mom & wife don't count ;-): I'm a music teacher.Saw an interesting quote on one of your classroom walls. It read, “We live in a society that does not value art + thought.” I agree! I think that many people love the idea of the arts and children, but do not understand that just like any discipline, arts require time and effort. If you want children to be creative, give them time and space to be creative. If you want children to sing and make music, give them time to sing and make music. It seems simple enough. But it's not happening. If people who make decisions do not make it a priority, schools will not make time for students to make music. We need to cultivate a creative culture when the students are young and consistently. Singing is hard. Your students shouldn't feel bad for not knowing how to do it, especially if they did not have music consistently or had a music teacher who instilled a love for it. If you choose to venture into class singing, may I suggest picking a list of songs (simple, and not a rap) and start singing together in the beginning/end of the class. But everyone, including you, have to join in. Goal: to have fun. If you ever need a music teacher's help, ask me or other teachers you know. I'd be happy to help more students make music. Life is just too short to not enjoy, appreciate, and create music.Thanks for this post, @mrchase!@DoremiGirl

  9. Great project, great post, great thread. The tension between pushing our artists to commit and hone their skills and making art accessible to all is something I have spent a bit of time with of late. I have recently decided to chase a bit of a dream and become a musician before my next birthday. I have done some thinking about what I think constitutes a musician and taken the steps to engage in a practice that brings me closer to where I want to be. This means carrying my uke everywhere and putting myself out there as often as possible – on the bus, waiting in line, crashing tech conferences, and the like. In this process I have learned a few things:1) as you practice, so you are. Of course I will never see myself as a musician if I never play. I won't just wake up one morning with a tattoo on my forehead claiming my musicianhood (I sure hope not, anyway!), but the subtle improvements in being able to challenge and learn a difficult song, or hit a note in a way I couldn't before has shown me that my practice is feeding the musician within me and making her stronger. 2) The muse is a fickle thing. As I continue to write songs, some much better than others, I am reminded of Elizabeth Gilbert's fantastic TED talk on creativity (…). The pressure of creating genius out of nothing but the deep depths of my Self is dissipated if I accept genius as something that visits me from the outside world. Like a muse that calls forth its own creation, music, art, writing, performances can be thought of as entities in and of themselves which find modes to enter the world if we leave ourselves open to guiding them here. 3) While we have been taught humility (and it certainly has its place), it does not serve the world to hide your light. This is what I work on the most. I sing quietly at times; I put away my uke if someone else pulls out an instrument; I back away if someone steps in, yet I am continually amazed when others appreciate my music and ask me to play their favourite songs. Most of the time I play and sing in order to entertain myself, but I need to recognize that others take joy in my sharing and acknowledge the amazing energy they give me as my audience. When I hide from the gaze of others I suggest that they shouldn't be enjoying my music. Rather than presenting a gift, I am leaving a delicious plate of food out on the table, secretly hoping someone will pick it up and enjoy, but not inviting anyone to taste.

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